Friday 14 September 2018

Autism in the Outdoors

The Scouting year is about to begin again, and this year after 5 years in Scouts (ages 11 to 14) I'm going back to Cubs (ages 8 to 10).  My second oldest is continuing on to Venturers (ages 14 to 18) but said he only wants to continue on if I'm not there.  Which is totally cool by me - in fact pretty awesome honestly.  At the beginning of every Scouting year I always have a meeting with the parents during which I tell them amongst many other things : "the most precious thing I can give to your child is something I cannot give to my own - independence".  As Scout leaders we try to mitigate against this with various techniques - like when climbing mountains in the Adirondacks we try to ensure we are not in the same hiking group as our own kids.  Or for example in the spring on our first canoe trip this past year we were spread across 3 different camp sites on the lake, one of which was a bit further away - and my son was staying on it with two of the outer Scout leaders while I stayed on the other two sites.

Anyway, my next son is moving up from Beavers to Cubs this year, and I'm joining him.  In fact I'm moving into the Akela role - the head Cub leader - even though the program has changed completely in the 5 years since I was Akela last time and I'm walking into something completely new.   This is the new "Canadian Path" in Scouts Canada, for anyone familiar with it.  As much as I am a bit disappointed that I won't get to do some of the more exciting things that I really enjoy like Winter Camp in the backwoods, Canoe Trips, Hiking trips and so on, I am really excited about giving my next son the same sort of experience I helped give the older two when we went through the program together.  And I'm hoping we get to spend the next 6-7 years together just like I did with the older two.

But that's not what I'm here to write about.

I want to start this post by saying I really don't know much about autism, and if I'm using the wrong words or anything like that please educate me gently - I have the best intentions.

In Beavers spring camp back in May or June or whenever it was, I attended with my 8 year old as a "civilian" i.e a parent not a leader.  It was a 2 night camp up north a bit in the backwoods of Quebec.  Even though I was a civilian on that trip I did have a bit of authority and responsibility because all the other adults there - or most of them at least - knew that I was the head Scout leader.  And I used that authority to introduce something that I had learned 5 or 6 years ago from another Cub leader the last time I was in Cubs - lighting matches!  It is the simplest thing in the world, and also just about the most brilliant idea I'd ever seen in the Scouting program.  If you've ever seen youth learn to light matches you'll know exactly what I am talking about - because it is not the easiest thing in the world to learn, and they are often really timid and this causes them to have a lot of problems lighting matches.  The easiest remedy for this ailment is completely obvious in hindsight - give them a box of matches and let them just practice lighting them. And when they are done with that box, give them another one.  And so on, and so on, and so on (obscure 80s reference to an old shampoo commercial). 

So on the Friday night I opened up my fire bag - a nylon bag I keep with all my fire-making equipment in it - and pulled out a couple of cartons of matches, where each carton had a dozen or so little boxes of wooden matches.  And I announced that any of the 3rd year Beavers who were moving up to Cubs next year should learn how to use matches.  And I just started handing them out.  Of course, to keep it safe the rule is that you light them and toss them into the camp fire.

This is when I really met George for the first time.  Of course his name is not George but I'm calling him George.  He was giddy lighting those matches.  It was the most amazing experience in the world for him.  He was jumping after every match and expressed a level of excitement that was not just energetic it was contagious.  And it started to infect me as well.  I started laughing with George, and I started dancing with George.  And it was not until 10 or 15 minutes later that I realized that George was possibly autistic.  Not knowing anything at all about autism as I've already admitted, I am guessing that this is what you call "high functioning autism".  George is just like any other 8 year old 90% of the time, and he wouldn't really stand out out otherwise.  And even when he was disconnecting from the rest of us or whatever the proper term is, you might just think he was a high-maintenance youth who was overly coddled by his parents.  George and I really hit it off that weekend at least as far as I could tell, and I was really enjoying the fact that the matches that I'd brought were something that he was really connecting with and were giving him so much joy.  But not only that, they were something that without exception was able to bring him back to the rest of us when he from time-to-time disconnected and did whatever it is that autistic people do when they disconnect from everyone else.  Again, I do not know what is the correct way to describe this phenomenon, I am only trying my best.  Please be gentle.

This year as I am stepping back into the Akela role in Cubs, I do so with the knowledge that George is one of the Cubs I will have this year.  He is in the group with my 8 year old who is moving up from Beavers to Cubs.  This represents possibly the most challenging situation I've faced yet in my time as a Scouting leader.  I've had other challenges in the past - most of which center around food allergies and religious and medical requirements around menu planning.  I've also had several bed wetters that we had to deal with discretely - in one circumstance a Scout suffering from bed wetting came on our 5 day canoe trip and the way we dealt with it was to have him sleep in a hammock on his own every night, and every morning we invariably had to wash the hammock and sleeping bag in the lake, without any of the other youth noticing.  And we had to ensure it was all dry that night.  We also once had a Scout with a rare medical condition which meant that he experienced pain about 10 to 20 times more intensely than other people. So just simply stubbing your toe or bumping your shin on a hiking trip lead to incapacitating pain and rolling around on the ground in sheer agony.  But we dealt with it and those youth had a positive experience and a great time in our program.

I did not know how to deal with any of those other situations at first, either.  We always started with talking with the parents and trying to get some advice.  Then we'd propose a few ideas and discuss.  This is precisely the same approach I am taking with George.  His father was at Beavers camp as well in the spring, and I think he was truly amazed and thrilled to learn that matches were such a thing with George.  In our email exchanges leading up to our first Cubs meeting I've decided with George's dad that we're going to tell George that if he can stay with us for the meeting and do well, that we'll take him outside after the meeting to light some matches.  I'm going to bring a stainless steel bowl so we can teach the Cubs how to practice with matches safely by ensuring they all end up in the bowl, and we've also discussed the idea of George nominating 2 or 3 other Cubs to light matches with him at the end of every meeting - where he should pick different Cubs each week. 

I've also starting discussing knife safety with George's dad, and different ways we might approach this with him.  My goal as I stated early on is to basically treat George like any other youth with the goal being that he can attend meetings and camps without his parents there, just like any other youth.  We've also talked a bit about knots, and working with George on them.  For all we know he'll become a knot expert and will be the one teaching them to the rest of the Cubs.  Wouldn't that be amazing!

Whatever the case - a new Scouting year approaches and it will be a different set of challenges for me.  It won't be about keeping youth safe in extreme conditions and teaching them how to survive.  It will be about working closely with one special boy and his dad to ensure he is able to have the same experience as the rest of the 8 year olds who are excited about moving up to the next level.

If anyone has an experience working with autistic youth, I am definitely eager to hear from you.

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